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One of the I Programmer team signed up for MITx's first experimental course offering - 6.002x Circuits and Electronics - and now it's all over. As the Final Exam's dust settles, we asked for a full account. Did it work? Was it fun? Did you actually learn anything?
As the hardware editor of I Programmer it had to be me (Harry Fairhead). I signed up for the first MITx course expecting it to be a walk down memory lane and nothing difficult - how wrong can you be!
I've been working with electronics for longer than I care to admit but I quickly discovered that many of the analysis techniques I learned in University had atrophied, as had my homework skills. Even the first week's workload was more than I was expecting and was a wake-up call that if I was going to get to the end I needed to take things more seriously and in a more organized way.
The course, the first delivered by MITx and intended as a "prototype" for future ones used an approach which mixed video lectures, labs and tutorials presented in a way that at first was difficult to figure out, particularly if you were tempted the skip the introductory bits that explained the site in in favor of getting to some "real electronics"!
The website did a good job of not losing what you had done and the very few crashes and outages did little damage to progress. However, it was difficult to keep track of where you were in the course and adding some state saving widget would help so that when the courseware page opens you knew where you are - I missed a complete homework and lab simply because I jumped a week!
The video lecturers themselves were often very repetitive - recapping where we had got to, explaining what we were about to do, doing it, doing it again, explaining it again, re-explaining what we just did and probably saying it all again before it is recapped in at the start of the next lecture. Even so, overall it seemed to work. Ideas sunk in, got stuck in the brain and developed into general approaches and techniques. Overall, this was good as long as you had the time to devote to the videos, plus of course an adequate broadband connection.
The labs were also good. This being electronics you might think that you needed a soldering iron etc but no, everything was simulated. The simulator software running in the browser worked fairly well and allowed the student to see the theory in practice.
True, there were no fingers burned and no components exploded, but it was good enough to encourage at least some of the students to talk about building real circuits on the forum.
Homework assignments were in the main quite tough. In most cases the questions couldn't be answered by simply applying some formula that had been introduced in the class. Nor was it a case of identifying the situation, looking up the appropriate part of the lecture series, regurgitating the theory and plugging in the numbers.
The questions really tested if you understood what was going on by throwing the student a curve ball. The actual software itself could do with some tweaks. It was generally OK with questions that needed numeric answers, but some questions required long equations to be typed in and you needed to know how to format the equations to get the right answer. Sometimes this could be frustrating.
The homework was self-marking. Once you entered your answer to a question and pressed the mark button either a green tick or a red cross appeared, providing instant feedback. Now here is the trick - you could submit as many attempts as you liked to keep trying for a green tick.
At this point you are probably thinking that this makes things easy, but no. You can't just guess. You have to work it out. Electronics is a subject where guessing isn't generally an option and so the absence of a green tick can indicate a wide variety of things: you have the wrong theory; you are applying the wrong formula; you have the arithmetic wrong; or even you have the sign (+ or -) wrong.
The instant feedback proved to be addictive as students worked ridiculously hard to turn a red cross into a green tick and on they way learned huge amounts of stuff. They learned not only the theory behind the techniques, but clever and wiley ways of applying it.
Having discovered how challenging the homework was I was somewhat apprehensive at the prospect of the mid-term. Would it be at the same level?
The exam was available over a period or about four days but once you made a start on it you had to complete it within 24 hours, though the expectation was that it would take "a couple" of hours to finish and there was to be absolutely no collaboration, whereas for homework students were allowed to seek and provided a certain amount of "general help". Some students were barred for having infringed the honor code, proving that cheating was not tolerated.
The mid-term exam used the same instant feedback approach - only now with a three tries and you are out rule. You could have three attempts to enter the answers to a multi-part question and again you might think that this made the whole thing easy - but no.
The questions were tough and you had to work hard for an answer. If you got one or more red crosses on the first attempt you worked even harder checking before you tried the second and as you can imagine the third attempt wasn't entered lightly.
It was like the best computer game you could play with highs and lows to match. And yes it didn't take much longer than a couple of hours to tackle all five problems.